How to Use Nutrient Density to Make Healthier Food Choices

Simon SumDCN, RDN, ACSM-CPT, FAND – Manager, Global Product Safety & Science, R&D

People all over the world are choosing to be healthier. That’s what the growth in the wellness industry indicates. The global wellness economy was a $4.5 trillion market in 2018, and the industry grew by 6.4 percent annually from 2015–2017, nearly twice as fast as global economic growth, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

The desire of consumers to live healthier lives is great news, but how can we help them navigate a world where the amount of both products and information can be overwhelming?

Part of the solution is providing customers with affordable nutritious alternatives, but another part has to do with meeting increasingly educated consumers’ demands. A good place to start is with a basic healthy-eating concept: nutrient density.

What Is Nutrient Density and Why Does It Matter?

Nutrient density is a measure of how much nutrition you get per serving or per calorie eaten. It’s an important metric to develop a healthy diet.

When choosing between two food items with the same calorie amount, one food choice can provide the body with the protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals we need every day, while another choice may provide empty calories from sugar and saturated fat with no other significant nutrients.

We examined the impact of FDA’s updated Nutrient Daily Values on the Nutrition Rich Food (NRF) Index, a tool that measures the nutrient density of individual foods as well as meals.

Our research determined that the recent changes to the Nutrient Daily Values have a significant impact on the NRF scores for many food items in the major USDA food groups, other than vegetables. Our two main findings were the following:

This study is a further validation of the importance of nutrient density in maximizing nutrition, while limiting excessive calories.

Below is an example of two drink options: a common iced latte versus a meal replacement shake. Nutrient density helps you evaluate what’s best for your body.

Nutrient Density of Coffee vs Shake

Ultimately, understanding the nutritional information available on food labels can empower people to make smarter eating decisions, choosing from a variety of foods and beverages that are higher in nutrient density throughout the day. And the way to ensure healthy choices is to continue to educate consumers about the ever-evolving landscape of nutrition science.